All’improvviso & contemporary commedia
- No oral tradition? No all’impro? – If all’improvviso can only be rich & complex where there is an oral tradition and there is no extensive oral tradition in the UK where The Rudes perform, are our attempts at all’impro always going to be banal therefore? Maybe before we answer that we should ask why we should bother anyway? Let’s just write great scripts & stick with that?
- Something special – But all’improvviso can bring something special too, spontaneity & authenticity. I find it hard to listen to a lot of radio plays which often have an artificiality about them because the language has all the ‘umm-ing’ & ‘ahh-ing’ ironed out. It is too perfect to be real. In the real world people often speak in a halting manner; we pause, back track, re-think, making little sounds of hesitancy. Just listening to our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, for five minutes makes the point. And that isn’t a criticism; it can be charming. The point is it is how people actually speak. There is usually a constant over-lapping, interrupting & talking over each other & often too a kind of chorus of responses in the background as people are carried along, assenting or dissenting from the leading voice. Heavily scripted plays can ‘disinfect’ language & take all the life & spontaneity out of it.
- Two important things about great theatre – My favourite radio play is ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas. The point about this play is that Thomas takes fragments & echoes of real speech & weaves them into poetry. He doesn’t try to iron out speech but makes its imperfections its form. Of course, it is all embedded in the script from the start; there is no all’impro, but it feels real. ‘The Listening Project’ on Radio 4 on the other hand is also great theatre because it too accepts the imperfections of real speech but this time by just ‘holding up a microphone to nature’. It’s great acting because people aren’t acting. They are being themselves. There are two things here, therefore, that are important: ‘Controlled form’, for example, poetry (but it could be prose too), and the spontaneous vitality of real speech. In something like ‘The Listening Project’ the ‘controlled form’ is achieved in the editing. Plays on the other hand appear to want to construct ‘real life’ from scratch, which can’t be done, of course. That is why we & traditional commedia never pretend it is anything else but ‘just a play’ & they are ‘just actors’.
- The best of both worlds – The question is: How can we get the best of both worlds? Having the spontaneity of real speech & the ‘controlled form’ of, for example, beautiful, rich poetry? In the Oral Tradition of the Ancient Mediterranean world that spawned the commedia dell’arte literacy did not get in the way. Language in the form of stories & poems were carried naturally in the head emanating out of the natural rhythms of everyday speech, demonstrated by Milman Parry’s & Albert Lord’s research referred to in a previous page. That can’t be done when literacy is always trying to impose order on it. However, there are compromises that can work.
- The loss of the ‘fourth wall’ – There is a fashion among a lot of outdoor theatre companies today to talk off the cuff to the audience. This is only possible to begin with because there is no ‘fourth wall’. Much of the play takes place in daylight; there are no bright lights shining in the actors’ eyes as there are in theatres where it is almost impossible to even see the audience because of the lights. This only kicks in late in the evening outdoors. Also, late 19th & 20th C trends in theatre have turned actors back into themselves & away from audiences, except in styles inherited from the commedia like music hall & panto. The temptation is really strong for actors therefore to ‘chuck in lines willy-nilly’ at the slightest encouragement – and audiences do love it! If it works. So why not do it therefore?
- Problems & opportunities – Obviously we want the audience to have a good time & some of the best theatre moments in our performances have been sudden & witty interventions by actors thinking quickly on their feet – and this is probably a good point to mention ‘stand up’. Stand up comedy is all about the intimate live relationship between comic & audience & demonstrates the very best (& sometimes the worst) in all’impro. The point is the comedians prepare very thoroughly what they are going to say to ensure that shape & structure is carefully controlled – Going on too long could be a disaster – but then allow their sharp wit to burst into life at exactly the right moment when the opportunity arises.
- For it to work you have to be really good at it & you can be a very good actor but not a very good improviser & the thing falls flat on its face. Also, if an actor feels he or she has complete freedom to say what they like a play can be extended by fifteen to twenty minutes! It has happened to us. All’impro can stop a play stone dead, the story line is forgotten, other actors aren’t sure when to come back in, sometimes there is ‘treading’ on, that is actors speaking on top of each other by mistake, coming in too early, or there are ‘dead moments’. Sometimes the thrown in line is simply not very good. The entire rhythm of the play is lost. All’impro can be a disaster – and is justified sometimes among contemporary commedia companies because they think that was how it was done in the tradition. It wasn’t!
The Rudes & all’improvviso – While it isn’t possible to reproduce the cultural conditions of an Oral Tradition in contemporary commedia without avoiding pitfalls such as these & at worse sheer banality, there are compromises, which allow us to at least approach what commedia dell’arte in the tradition might have sounded like. We differentiate, therefore, between two levels of speech, the ‘melody‘ & the ‘harmony‘ lines. As all our actors are also musicians in theory they should understand the idea.
- The melody line – We begin with a formal script. In it there are carefully prepared passages including poems, ‘poetic prose’, rhetorical speeches, ‘shared speeches’ around for example a tableau vivant, devices like battuté, where lines in a dialogue are hit back & forwards in strict time like in a tennis match, songs, asides to the audience, direct address to the audience & natural, conversational dialogue. This is the ‘melody’ line & carries the story – and is ‘rich text‘, that is, thought through carefully in advance. If the writing isn’t good enough, too wordy, just too long, the concept not clear enough, the actors on their feet & director together in rehearsal will see that it’s not working & it can be changed.
- At this point too if costume changes are too quick – We use multiple role-playing – then ‘bridge passages’ can be added to give time. The point about the melody line is that it is ‘almost sacrosanct’ once the play is made & has settled down in the run. There are in effect ‘a million beats‘ & we need to try not to waste a single one of them. Every beat must count, so random lines thrown in willy-nilly will mess that up. The storyline needs to be clear & cues need to be bedded in so there is no ambiguity & waste of beats. The pauses are really important. They control not only how the audience anticipate the sense but support with movement where the audience gaze is focused, & there should be no wasted beats when nothing is happening. Even stillness must have its own beats. Well, that is our aim! Of course, achieving this ‘perfection’ is a different matter!
- The harmony line – This sounds as though there is no room for all’impro, therefore; but there is. I want the actors to think in terms of a secondary ‘harmony’ line. In the script there are indications of where all’impro might take place & suggestions for the kind of things that might be said. In rehearsals the actors can try the suggested lines out, or better still think up their own. Because it is a harmony to the main melody, they will have to work out where the lines will fit in. They might be able to sneak in a line without disrupting the melody in its own space, in which case it might become part of the melody (if it’s good enough).
- This process gives power & responsibility to the actors which is good but must therefore be disciplined. More likely it will be softer in volume & said ‘under’ the melody, harmonising with it. There may well be several actors putting in their all’impro, so consideration must be given to volume & distraction from the main story-telling line. It must never add beats to the melody – once the play has settled, experiments completed & decisions made. The point is, all this is done in rehearsal & in maybe the first few performances of the run, but eventually it must settle down. The harmony is important. Its volume can swell or soften; it can direct the audience gaze & control their mood. It can have all the imperfections of real speech, overlapping, hesitating, uncompleted sentences & so on, as long as it remains sub-surface harmony & doesn’t add beats.
- Opportunist all’improvviso – So no ad libs therefore? It is perfectly true that some of the best moments can be when an actor ad libs, especially when something unusual happens – like a member of the audience walking across the stage or coming in late, or a helicopter landing in an adjacent field (all of which happen in outdoor theatre). So, of course, we can have those moments, but with certain provisos. The moment will stop the play dead, so the more of them there are the more time will be added; the play may just get too long & the storyline might get lost in the process. Also, the more an actor does it the more other actors become insecure with their cues. And the all’impro really does have to be worth it or it will fall flat on its face. So, yes, now & again if the opportunity arises & if you are really good at it. But essentially to get the best out of all’improvviso it needs to be harmony not an excuse for melody.
- What about ‘devised theatre’ – I shall put my head on the line here & probably a train full of actors & directors of devising companies will come along & lop it off! But here goes. I have seen some decent & some very good devised theatre. I have not heard any, not once, that is textually rich. I don’t think it is possible. However, devised theatre can do other things. Some companies are really original & provocative in the concepts which they raise, or in their observations of the human experience – and it has moved me deeply, even though the text was plain & simple, even banal. Theatre isn’t only ‘pretty words’. Sometimes too the words are just punctuation marks in what is otherwise physically poetic theatre language – and the London Mime Festival constantly gives me joy in this kind of theatre. I don’t rate it higher or lower than what we call commedia parodia; it is just different & that’s fine.
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